Feeling The Arctic In Greenland

Colorful buildings of Ilulissat sit on the edge of the town’s ice choked harbor. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Ilulissat means “iceberg” in Greenlandic. And indeed, there are icebergs here. On a cruise that covered a good chunk of the high arctic from Canada to Greenland, this place was the standout — but not just for the ice.

First, however, a comment about that “high arctic” term. We’re talking here waaaay north in a context where Churchill (the polar bear place) and Yellowknife (Iceroad Truckers) are considered the tropical south. Our cruise aboard Adventure Canada’s Clipper Adventurer took us to tiny, remote Inuit villages along with all the infamously disastrous sites of failed 19th century polar explorations where one wonders how nations could make heroes out of so many stubborn jerks.

In Your Bucket Because….

  • You like exotic places.
  • Your idea of a cruise is nature lectures and Goretex without fancy dinners or nightclub shows.
  • You want to see the very, very far north.
  • You are interested in native culture and exploration history.
  • Best for: experienced travelers who want a destination that most other folk haven’t done.

That, though, is not what turned out to be the highlight of our trip.

It was Ilulissat, for so many reasons.

Ilulissat’s crowning glory is Jakobshavn Glacier (known locally as Sermeq Kajalleq). This is the world’s fastest and most active glacier. It “creeps” at a rate of 4.5 miles every year (both towards the ocean and back again) and 18-20 tons of ice calve off it daily — yes, daily.

Though fishing, especially shrimp, is the town’s main occupation, tourism is big here. So there’s this boardwalk that goes from the edge of town through the tundra right up to that huge chunk of ice.

Inuit man in Ilulissat holds polar bear carving he made from caribou bone with a bear claw. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

The boardwalk, alone, is beautiful in summer, lined with fluffy arctic cotton and an endless mat of crowberries, which in August are ripe for the picking. I started, of course, with those crowberries, which were so thick that you just needed to sweep your hand through the inch high ‘bushes’ to come up with a fistful. They were so sweetly tart, they made my tongue shiver.

Then it was on to the ice. At the end of the boardwalk, you can take trails up low rocks to this incredible overlook. Before us, as far as we could see, stretched a floating mat of ice — sloping frozen mountains along with smaller bergy bits and even smaller cocktail cubes that heaved slowly back and forth with unseen currents.

Adventures In Eating

My friend and I were tempted to eat our cruise ship sandwiches at the overlook picnic table but decided, instead, to head for Ilulissat’s famous musk ox burger.

First, though, we encountered serious sticker shock. Greenland is not a cheap place to visit. The first cafe wanted $30 US for the burger alone. Instead, we continued on to Cafe Iluliaq, a cute place with a deck that was closer to shore, where the burger was $20 ($23 with fries) while a luscious mocha coffee sliced another $7 from our wallets.

Since we had been without cell service or internet for nearly two weeks, we thought (briefly) of buying internet at a local hotel but quickly gave up after learning it would be $75.

Musk Ox burger at a local cafe in Ilulissat, Greenland. This lunch cost $23 US. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

The burger, honestly, was worth it not only for its flavor but also, frankly, as an experience. The meat was tender, with a hint of game that gently hits the roof of your mouth and, like one of our Inuit friends said, speaks of the land.

We wound up the day with a Zodiac tour of Disko Bay’s icebergs, threading our way through a white soup of  bits, big and small. Dave, our boat driver and guide to all things frozen, grabbed a chunk of clear glacier ice for drinks, holding it up so his face was fractured by its crystal facets.

And then we heard a loud crack, followed by a rumble, followed by a huge splash. The entire side of a house-sized iceberg had collapsed, disintegrating as it fell into the water in a gray cloud of ice crystals that looked like smoke. Then, the largest chunk rolled, leaving its smooth, translucent, green underside sparkling in the sun.

That night, we toasted the berg, the burger and the entire day with glacier cocktails of crystalline chunks that had fallen as snow possibly before Neanderthals reached Europe.

Clear glacial ice held by man who just plucked it from ice choked Disko Bay at Ilulissat, Greenland. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Recommended Reading

  • Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986). An oldie but still good book called one of the finest written about the far north and the conditions people face for survival.
  • Who Owns the Arctic? by Michael Byers (2009). A primer by the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. It discusses arctic sovereignty in detail.
  • The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole by Pierre Berton (1988). This brings the great explorers, the good and the bad, to life, including Franklin, Peary and Amundsen, among others, and talks about the skills of the Inuit which saved lives more than once.

Practicalities

  • Adventure Canada runs seven arctic itineraries from mid July to October that include the Northwest Passage, the very high arctic and lower arctic areas such as Labrador. Trips average nine days and are aboard the Clipper Adventurer, a refurbished Scandinavian ship that can carry 118 pasengers and has an ice hardened hull.
  • It’s COLD here. Bring your down jackets, your Goretex jackets and, especially, rain pants along with totally waterproof boots (think yacht boots or Wellington boots), plus light hiking boots for the tundra. Also bring a wool hat and light gloves.
  • If you come to Ilulissat via a cruise ship, it will be an informal expedition type ship. No fancy wear needed and, in fact, the tight schedule will have you hopping, and you may find yourself doing dinner and the evening’s activities in the same grubbies you wore to the tundra. Don’t sweat it, everyone else will be doing this, too.
  • Telephone and standard internet aboard Adventure Canada’s Clipper Adventurer (when available) are breathtakingly expensive. But the ship’s webmail is cheap and wonderful for short messages.
  • Bring cash. Even if your credit card works in Greenland (they use pin numbers we don’t have) there will be a 3.75 percent surcharge on that end along with whatever your bank charges. Bring LOTS of cash since a mere hamburger can run you $30.
  • If you want a souvenir, WAIT for the museum gift shop. The quality is great and the prices are much lower than the town gift shops.
  • When you reach the end of the boardwalk leading to the glacier, continue on the hiking trail another 10 minutes to the rocks where a short scramble will bring you to a picnic table and a million dollar overlook of spectacular ice.

    Face of iceberg falls into ocean in Disco Bay off the town of Illulissat on Greenland’s southwest coast. The harbor is ice choked year round. Photo by Tanya De Leeuw.

 

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